Many of us have nearly forgotten an era in which it was commonplace for a person to be denied employment because she was blind, or unable to attend a university because he was in a wheelchair—an era in which people with disabilities were second-class citizens. That treatment sparked a small but powerful equal-opportunity movement—and, twenty years ago today, that movement celebrated a pivotal success: the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. The ADA codified the ideal that no one should suffer discrimination because of a disability. It shattered barriers, opening our buildings, sidewalks, schools, public transportation, and workplaces to Americans with disabilities.
Over its two decades it has helped 50 million Americans live better lives. And, thanks to the same movement that helped write the ADA, America has also seen inclusion in the voting booth, where improvements in accessibility have helped people with disabilities carry out their most important civic duty. In 2000, polling places around the country lacked the accommodations disabled citizens needed to fill out their ballots. But in 2008, according to the Government Accountability Office, people with disabilities found it significantly easier to access the polls and to vote privately and independently.
As those improvements show, our work to fully include Americans with disabilities didn’t end 20 years ago. In fact, in 2008 Congress, with strong support from both parties, reformed the ADA to ensure that its protections apply broadly to all individuals with disabilities, even to those whose conditions might not be visibly apparent, such as diabetes, epilepsy, and various developmental disabilities. Every one of these steps, from 1990 to the present, have made our country fairer, more inclusive, and more productive.
But we still have work to do, even in Congress. Until today, members of Congress with physical disabilities have been unable to preside over the House of Representatives as Speaker Pro Tempore, because the House rostrum has not been wheelchair accessible. Now, that’s changing: to commemorate the 20th Anniversary, our rostrum is becoming wheelchair accessible, and Rep. Langevin will be able to preside over the House—a role most members have been able to assume, but one that members with disabilities will be able to perform for the first time.
Throughout our country, Americans with disabilities remain one of our nation’s greatest untapped resources, and they continue to face challenges in accessing employment, transportation, housing, and even health care. As more veterans return with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other serious injuries, the challenge will only grow.
While today, far more businesses realize the economic potential of people with disabilities, employment remains a significant challenge—at a much higher rate for Americans with disabilities. Just over half of Americans with disabilities are employed—but many more have the desire to work, as well as important talents to offer our workforce. With reasonable accommodations—such as telework—our economy can reap the benefit of those talents. It serves the same goal of equal opportunity to ensure that people with disabilities have the transportation they need to get to their job, or the doctor, or the grocery store; that children with disabilities have every opportunity to learn in the classroom; and that technologies from computers to PDAs are fully accessible for the vision- and hearing-impaired. And people with disabilities need to know about their rights under the ADA, as well as the recourse available to them if they face discrimination.
Twenty years ago, the ADA demonstrated how much our country can change for the better when business and advocates, Democrats and Republicans work together for the common good. It’s an encouraging lesson as we work to live up to the ADA’s promise.
Rep. Hoyer is the House Majority Leader. Rep. Langevin represents Rhode Island's second district and is presiding over the House chamber today.